Phaemie Ng – founder of Two Rags

Phaemie Ng is a social entrepreneur and founder of Two Rags, a modern underwear brand with heart. Her brand provides a tangible way for customers to give back and help others in need. Having been struck by images of poverty and inequality, she seized the opportunity to create something meaningful and worthwhile to make the world a better place.

My grandmother had a saying about putting in the hard yards first and then reaping rewards, simply translated from Chinese, it’s ‘first bitter then sweet’.

Originally from Singapore, Phaemie attended college in the USA and afterwards lived and worked in New York City. While there, she had her first taste of the start-up scene and was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, moonlighting on various ventures before moving to Sydney in 2010 with her husband, Adam. She worked in the digital and marketing spaces in both New York and Sydney, experience which came in very handy while building Two Rags. In August this year, Phaemie took the plunge to working on the development of Two Rags full-time.

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Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

Two Rags produces well-designed and ethical underwear. For every pair of underwear we sell, we give a kit of reusable sanitary pads to a girl or woman in need. The name sums it up, a rag (underwear) for you and a rag (kit) for them. It’s a win-win situation! What we want to do is connect design-focused, socially-conscious women to our mission of empowering people in need by improving feminine hygiene, an area that’s often hushed. If you give a girl the tools to manage her basic needs, she can go on to achieve greater things like getting an education or a higher wage.

Any girl knows that managing a period without proper supplies is stressful, challenging and even disruptive to daily activities. In the first world we take tampons and pads for granted, but the reality is girls and women in many parts of the world lack access or means to purchase these materials. As a result, they face challenges in health, hygiene, and education. Due to embarrassment and an inability to manage their periods away from home, many girls absent themselves from school or worse, they drop out completely. In India alone, an estimated 300 million women use unhygienic old rags because they simply can’t afford proper sanitary materials. Two Rags wants to fight this, empowering these girls through socially-conscious retail, without giving up good design.

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Please explain your business model.

Two Rags functions like any other clothing retailer, except that the price of our underwear covers both the underwear and the kit. When you buy underwear from us, you are also sponsoring a kit that will later be given to someone in need. We chose the commercial-supports-philanthropy model rather than not-for-profit to ensure a self-sufficient financial future for the company.

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next three months?

We’re constantly working on making Two Rags underwear designs a reality. Our first style is being manufactured now and it’s a hipster brief in two different designs. Fortunately, hipsters are flattering for pretty much everyone. You can actually pre-order them now on the website while they are being manufactured.

I’m really excited about our manufacturing partners. We had strict criteria to identify India-based ethical producers who are social enterprises themselves. They do amazing things for the community like train, upskill and gainfully employ at-risk groups like slum dwellers or displaced rural farmers to manufacture our products. I love the fact that by purchasing Two Rags underwear, you are supporting someone’s livelihood as well as improving someone’s quality of life with the sanitary kits. That’s 3 wins if you count scoring yourself some comfy knickers too.

How do you make ideas happen?

To make an idea happen, the most important thing is to act on it. Talking about ideas helps validate them but without action, they’ll remain ideas. Being a small team, we can be agile and action-oriented with a “get stuff done” mindset. We find the biggest problems holding us back, brainstorm solutions and then act on them. You never get it right the first time but getting started is much harder than tweaking as you go, so my advice is to just get started. To increase my productivity, I use an issue-tracking tool called JIRA to create issues and weekly sprints (perhaps an influence from my previous job project managing digital and web development work). I find it keeps me focused on the big goals and provides well-defined structure to what can sometimes be a haphazard startup environment.

Developing your idea is a collaborative process. You may have come up with the initial spark, but you’ll need to get feedback from a wide variety of people. Two Rags is a product of many conversations with friends who are experts in their respective trades like fashion design, not-for-profits and even as expert “underwear wearers” who have given my designs a test run. I couldn’t have done it all by myself, and getting help from others is absolutely necessary to bring your idea to life.

I also think it’s critically important for your partner or loved ones to be involved or supportive. In my case, my husband Adam is my biggest supporter and helps out whenever and wherever he can. It’s a great feeling building something together and I certainly don’t think I could do this without his support.

What does your typical day look like?

It’s hard to say as it depends on what the major focus at that time is. I might be getting the website up and running, designing the next Two Rags style or organising logistics and manufacturing. Whatever the focus, my days consist of taking actions both big and small. I keep normal working hours to maintain a routine. On Sunday nights, we do a retrospective of what we accomplished the previous week and then define our goals for the next week.

I already mentioned that we work in weekly sprints. So on a typical day, I’m attacking issues in the sprint which could involve anything from writing a blog post, designing or sewing an underwear sample, engaging on social media, optimising Adwords, jumping on a call with the manufacturers… you name it. At the end of each day, we discuss the wins and brainstorm solutions to problems we encountered.

What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

I’ve faced both personal and economic challenges starting this business.

The high cost of goods and labour in Australia means it takes a significant amount of money, and risk, for most to start a business. I saved like crazy for many months in order to finance myself working on Two Rags. And I quickly found that it was expensive to buy things like fabric for samples and local production costs are exorbitant, making it difficult to compete with products manufactured in cheaper markets like Asia and even the USA.

Although e-commerce has improved a lot since I arrived in Australia, it is still lagging behind the USA. It’s hard to find niche supplies online as it seems Australians still prefer going to retail shops to see and touch products rather than buying things online. When I lived in the US, I bought pretty much everything online – even my engagement ring!

On a personal level, I was at the receiving end of many raised eyebrows when I decided to take the plunge. Who would give up a perfectly good 9-to-5 to take a risk and start from nothing? But overall the process has been pretty smooth and many people I look up to have been so supportive. I am proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short time.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

My grandmother had a saying about putting in the hard yards first and then reaping rewards, simply translated from Chinese, it’s “first bitter then sweet”. I live by this principle for Two Rags – we put in hard work and take risks now as we build the brand, knowing that someday we’ll take this budding business to places we can’t yet imagine. Dare to take a calculated risk if you can see the benefits beyond the temporary turbulence.

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry at the moment?

FEED Projects – I draw great inspiration from Lauren Bush Lauren and all the work she’s done in designing her FEED bags and fighting world hunger. Most of all, as one of the pioneers in socially-conscious retail, she’s certainly set the tone for businesses with important social missions.

Eco-Femme – they do groundbreaking work to improve feminine hygiene in rural Tamil Nadu.

What role do you think business can play in affecting social change?

Lots! Social businesses can show us how to balance profits and doing good for the world. Many of us live very comfortable lives, and social business can offer us a way to give a little to those who aren’t so fortunate.

Another role of social business is to provide disadvantaged communities with access to opportunities like education, small business loans and gainful employment so individuals can lead themselves and their communities out of the cycle of poverty. Providing opportunity together with aid is much more powerful than merely giving a handout. I came across this Indian company called Mirakle Couriers who provide honest and meaningful employment to the deaf community as couriers. Businesses like this give people an opportunity to make the best of what they’ve got.

For Two Rags, we make sure we support ethical producers who upskill and employ disadvantaged or at-risk groups in useful trades. As far as possible, our vision is to have locals create our products for locals – women sew the underwear and sanitary kits, we sell the former while the latter goes back into improving sanitation and hygiene in the local community. We want to give people their livelihood through creating our products, as well as the added bonus of the kits.

Speaking of affecting social change, we’ve teamed up with Shout for Good to encourage readers to ‘shout a coffee’ to charity by clicking the button below. Is there a particular charity you’d like to support? (follow link for complete list)

Yes! Two Rags would love to support So They Can, as they are doing wonderful things to bring communities out of poverty. We’re all for empowering those in need, so a huge kudos to them.

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Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers.

Inc. – a must read for all entrepreneurs

goop – a lifestyle site curated by Gwyneth Paltrow

Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) – learn about the challenges people face in sanitation and hygiene and see what’s being done about it.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

We’re looking for not-for-profits dealing with India to help with our kit distribution further down the road. We’ll also shortly be looking for interns for a host of activities like PR, social media etc. We’d love to hear from you if you’re interested.

You can also engage with us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Visit our website to learn more and pre-order some awesome underwear to help someone in need. Lastly, please tell your friends about it.

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

I’m trying every restaurant in Harris Park for Indian food, and I love Ginger and Spice in Mosman for Singaporean hawker food.

We thought it would be cool to crowdsource an annual prize to award to the interviewee’s choice (each person interviewed gets one vote) winner for the year’s best interview. Are you willing to kick in a prize?

Sure, we’ll throw in a few pairs of undies. The winner can choose the styles.

Get serious about making ideas happen!

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